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Questions arise over Old Ironsides’ live music

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Sacramento musicians and their followers are waiting to see whether this summer brings an end to an era of live music at Old Ironsides.

Countless local bands broke into the music business at the bar/restaurant known as "Old I" over the last two decades. But there’s currently only one weekend show booked for July.

Two shows that had been set for next month have been moved to another location, one has been canceled and future bookings have been postponed for now.

The family that has owned the bar at 1901 10th St. for 76 years is working to replace a rented sound system that was removed Sunday. The Kanelos family rented the system for about 17 years and was unable to negotiate a lower fee with the sound system’s owner, a concert promoter said.

Old Ironsides’ owners said they hope to know by early next week whether they’ve got a new system lined up and an installation date set, co-owner Sam Kanelos Jr. said.

"We’re just between sound systems," he said Monday afternoon while tending the bar. "You’re getting it from the horse’s mouth."

However, concert promoter Jerry Perry will be parting ways with Old Ironsides – at least temporarily – after booking shows there for at least a decade.

He won’t book bands there unless the bar brings in a sound system. He doesn’t want to rent systems each night or rely on bands to bring sound equipment because he won’t know how good the sound quality will be each night, he said.

Perry, who owns Jerry Perry Presents, has been booking all the bands at the club on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, except for dance club nights. Perry also books bands at Harlows and Luigi’s Slice Slice at 1050 20th St. He’ll book his first show at the downtown location of Naked Lounge this summer.

He said he moved two shows to Luigi’s after he was told by the owners that his July 1 show would be the last there and that the sound system was being removed. He stopped booking shows at Old Ironsides about a month ago in anticipation of that.

"They called me and told me they were done. That they weren’t going to be doing any live music anymore, except for open mic and dance nights," he said. "I love Old Ironsides, but until things change there and they get a sound system back … I won’t be doing shows there."

Perry talked with the owners about buying a sound system a decade ago and again in 2007. Until now, he and the bands paid a nightly fee to the bar owners to rent the sound system.

Dozens of musicians and Old I customers posted comments on Facebook last week after he posted a notice that he needed to move shows because the sound system was being removed. Old Ironsides’ owners later posted on their Facebook page asking customers to stay tuned for updates on the situation.

"We are just in the middle of switching sound systems and no decision has been made to completely let the night life go," the owners wrote in the post. "As of now, we are still here."

Some customers wondered if the bar was closing.

"We’re not going out of business," Kanelos said Monday.

Perry also stressed the bar isn’t shutting down.

"I don’t like this idea that people are talking about – ‘Oh, they’re done.’ That’s ridiculous. They’ve been there more than 75 years," he said. "I don’t want to see Old Ironsides lose any more business."

Recently, he had been working on deals to get the bar a new system. A durable, easy-to-store system including such things as amplifiers, speakers, microphones, mic stands, monitors, cables and a sound board would have cost about $14,000 or $15,000, he said.

One person was ready to install a rented system Monday that could be used until a new system was purchased. But the owners canceled the installation, Perry said.

Perry then told co-owner Billie Jean Kanelos he would have to move his shows. Her father, Bill Bordisso, was issued the first Sacramento liquor license after Prohibition ended for the bar.

Tuesday, Kanelos declined additional comment until the situation is resolved.

Perry said the family hasn’t gotten back in touch to say they’re bringing in a new system. They last told him they wanted bands or Perry to bring in sound on a night-to-night basis. Equipment would cost $200 a night or Perry would have to find bands with their own system.

That’s too expensive and impractical, Perry said. Consistent, high-quality sound can’t be guaranteed when working with a different sound system every night, he added.

Business is a bit lean for the bar in the summer – especially during the recession, Perry said.

Many local bands got started in the music business after Perry got behind them and booked them at Old I.

Perry began promoting bands in the early 1980s at the legendary Cattle Club on Folsom Boulevard. He also books the Friday Night Concerts in the Park at Cesar Chavez Plaza, Hot Italian’s free Hot Lunch series at Fremont Park and the bands for a three-day art event called Chalk It Up!

Old I brought in bigger crowds in the 1990s after getting the sound system and offering live music, said Evan Drath, who was the bar’s head sound engineer from 1995 to 2000. He also played bass guitar for Grub Dog and the Amazing Sweethearts.

Local bands that regularly packed Old I included Mother Hips, Okra Pickles, Sex 66, Magnolia Thunderfinger and Jackpot. It was well-known as a place for up-and-coming bands, he said.

"It established itself as a cultural point in Sacramento," Drath said. "The music obviously was the main part of that. It really brought it to another level nationwide as well as locally."

But now there’s more competition, fewer local bands and more virtual entertainment options keeping people at home in front of their computers. Band members are getting older, and other bands aren’t replacing them. People in their late-30s and 40s who established Old I as a live music venue are busy with their lives, Drath said.

Old Ironsides can’t always pack the house three nights a week like before, added Drath, now a touring sound engineer.

"There’s a reason why maybe the Kanelos (family) found it harder to meet the bottom line. It’s because the crowd is dwindling," he said. "A different culture around music has developed. It was an actual music experience you were having as opposed to a virtual music experience." 


Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneHurt.

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